In the guest blog, former Clinks Development Officer Patrice Lawrence looks at five enduring challenges for the families of prisoners.
I left Clinks at the end of December 2016 having led the work on the families of prisoners since September 2015. This is potentially a time of great change for the sector with major changes in government, including new ministers in the Ministry of Justice, reports of understaffing and rising violence in prisons and the increased prevalence of New Psychoactive Substances.
In the meantime, prisoners and their families continue to try their best to build, maintain and improve relationships in seemingly more difficult circumstances.
These are five of the enduring challenges.
1. The booking system
Some families still describe a struggle to organise a visit. Many visits are now booked centrally online; this is mainly satisfactory, although some family members cannot access the internet and others may struggle with literacy. Sometimes a telephone call is needed to make an enquiry or change a visit date and families report that it takes several attempts before their call is answered.
A manager at a visitor centre explained the logistics. The prison where she works holds around 1200 prisoners and hosts around 48,000 visitors a year. Other than Bank Holiday Mondays, Good Friday and Christmas Day, visits are available every day – twice a day on the weekend. Convicted prisoners are allowed one visit a week, remand visitors three visits.
There are only 2.5 staff members to process all domestic and legal visits coming via phone and email. Consequently, there are substantial delays.
2. Family friendly visits
Family days are highly appreciated by both family members and prisoners, but opportunities for children to benefit from them are inconsistent. In many male prisons, access to family days are linked to the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) schemes and are subject to staff availability (and potentially, funding) to run them.
Standard domestic visits should be family friendly. For example, does the room layout allow for children and families to play together? Is the toy box unlocked? Are staff friendly?
HMP Lincoln and Lincolnshire Action Trust (LAT) have worked hard to give the visits hall a relaxed, friendly environment. It is spacious with low, brightly-coloured soft seats gathered around low tables allowing privacy but also space for small children to move around. There is a well-stocked play area, but workers encourage activities that the families and children can enjoy together.
3. Non-face-to-face contact
Phone calls from prison remain prohibitively expensive and prisoners rely on family members to subsidise the costs as low prison wages are insufficient. Phone calls can be a lifeline for prisoners being held at long distances from their children and families, but the combination of cost, limited time for association and call cut-off periods challenges ease of contact. Prisoners also complain that mail takes an unnecessary time to get to them from the post room.
Schemes such as Email-a-prisoner and Storybook Dads make a considerable difference. The former where available is cheaper than standard post and quicker to get to the recipient. The latter uses storytelling to build warmth and connection between prisoners and children in their family. A child can fall sleep to the sound of their parent telling them a story.
Some families feel this deeply and may struggle to communicate what is happening to young children. (Organisations such as Pact have developed resources to help children know what to expect.) Families describe the embarrassment of asking for time off for visits and, on some occasions, have been advised not to mention the imprisonment to colleagues.
There are additional challenges for the families of prisoners convicted of sexual offences where the stigma can be intense and long term. The non-offending partner can be especially isolated, judged by friends and family and uncertain how to support their children.
Organisations such as Circles South East have begun to deliver psycho-educational programmes such as ‘Breaking the Cycle’ to support non-offending partners (usually mothers, but not necessarily the mothers of the children who have been abused). The programme helps mothers understand the nature of sexual offending, builds empathy for victims and aims to reduce isolation by building supportive networks.
5. New psychoactive substances
This is one of the biggest emerging challenges. A recent report by User Voice suggests that the presence of psychoactive substances such as spice is being normalised in prison. In some prisons they are more popular than hooch, heroin and cannabis. Research by Manchester Metropolitan University revealed that some prisoners on licence are deliberately being recalled so they can take in spice and make a considerable profit.
Spice is widely reported to have a devastating effect on prisoners – debt, violence, self-harm and mental and physical health deterioration, including psychosis and seizures.
Families may face direct consequences of their loved one’s spice use. If a prisoner incurs debts inside prison, family members may be threatened into payment on the outside. There is also the distress of seeing a loved one’s mental and physical health deteriorate, feeling powerless to intervene while they are in prison and wary of what happens on release.
As prison staff and substance abuse workers grapple with the issue inside, we must find ways to support families in the community.
In January 2017 as a new tendering process for commissioning services for families will commence, Clinks will continue to offer support to organisations who are looking to deliver services as part of this process.
Meanwhile, the Farmer Review - exploring the links between family ties and rehabilitation - will be reporting soon. This will be an important opportunity to look at how male prisoners’ family ties can be maintained and improved.